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Hoover, Herbert (1874-1964)

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Source: Editorial in Literature of Liberty, Summer 1981, vol. 4, No. 2

Editorial: Herbert Hoover (1874–1964)

For half a century Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) was an important spokesman for American values. Raised in Iowa and Oregon, he was one of the first students at Stanford University under its distinguished founder, David Starr Jordan (coming to Stanford from the presidency of Indiana University, Jordan was one of the most knowledgeable of the many prominent persons who spoke out boldly in the anti-imperialistic cause during the Spanish-American War and the suppression of Philippine independence). Hoover's training in geology at Stanford should not mislead us into viewing him as a narrowly trained engineer lacking a global vision. Hoover received a broad-based education at Quaker academies in West Branch, Iowa and Newberg, Oregon; and, after graduating from Stanford, he took advantage of opportunities for extensive self-education and far-flung travels. His career in mining took Hoover not only to the gold mines of the western United States but also to other mines throughout the world: in Australia, China, Russia, Burma, Italy, and Central America. From his offices in San Francisco, New York, and London, Hoover travelled by boat throughout nearly two decades to supervise his extensive business interests in such distant locations as Australia and China. Our understanding of this early part of Hoover's career has been illuminated by the biographical studies of Professors David Burner and George Nash, who inform us that during those long voyages Hoover read many thousands of volumes. Hoover's skillful 1912 translation from the Latin of Georgius Agricola's mining treatise De Re Metallica displays only one facet of his vast knowledge. Another indication of Hoover's ongoing passion for developing his mind was his decision to make his home on the Stanford campus for long periods of time.

Yet, when he returned to the United States following the First World War and the Versailles Conference, Hoover judged that the learning available in universities was inadequate to deal with the turbulent new world emerging from those cataclysms. The economic catastrophe of the First World War had shaken the stability of the laissez-faire capitalist world order. The nineteenth-century classical liberal ideas that Hoover had studied had proved powerless to defend capitalism; they had failed to prevent a protracted world conflict that dissipated the hard-won capital accumulation of an entire century. Hoover responded to this tragic situation by founding at Stanford the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace (1919) and the Food Research Institute (for the most important long-term material problems). Hoover's research institutions were intended to study how to achieve the peace so necessary for capitalist institutions, and also how to avoid wars whose economic dislocations would lead to socialist revolutions.

Hoover had headed the wartime Food Administration in Washington as well as the postwar Supreme Economic Council and the American Relief Administration in Europe (with Robert A. Taft serving as his legal advisor in each). Having devoted their energies during World War I and the immediate postwar period devising how to feed Americans and then all of Europe (in 1921, Hoover also headed a relief organization to provide food for the famine-ridden Soviet Union), Hoover and Taft had time, following the Versailles Conference, to reflect and draw lessons. America had entered the First World War at the very point when all belligerents were exhausted and faced with the need to negotiate a settlement. America's intervention upset the balance, gave one side the advantage, thus precluding a negotiated settlement while undermining the institutions of the Central Powers. However Russia, one of the Allies, though thoroughly exhausted, remained in the war at America's behest and suffered the consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution. Later, the agonies of the prolonged war inspired other Communist revolutions that wracked Germany and eastern European countries.

This fateful connection between war and the rise of socialism was evident to Hoover. All countries came out of the war with government intervention vastly increased, whether they maintained the form of democracy or opted for socialism or fascism. This cycle of war-spawned degeneration was continued with the Great Depression being the economic consequence of the First World War and with the unfair Versailles Treaty ushering in Nazi electoral victories in Germany and similar backlashes elsewhere. As thirty-first president of the United States, Hoover faced the effects of war and economic interventionism in both domestic and foreign policy.

The Great Depression generated major new problems in foreign policy to match those of America's domestic disarray. The most serious foreign crisis faced by the Hoover presidency was a direct consequence of the domestic economic crisis and concerned Japanese activities in Manchuria. The Great Depression caused many governments, including the United States and Great Britain, to respond with increased trade protectionism. As a result, Japan was increasingly shut out of markets it had gained after 1914 from its increased productivity and capital accumulation while other nations were consuming their capital in the First World War and its postwar dislocation of their finances. Japan lost markets in British India and other major colonies controlled by Western powers.

In response to this economic warfare, Japan sought a situation equal to the Western Powers with regard to Manchuria, a recent addition to China. To resolve this threatening problem with Japan, Hoover opted for one of two competing state department approaches. Overruling the aggressive state department position, which would have built up China and other major powers in the northern far East (such as the Soviet Union) in order to operate antagonistically toward the Japanese, Hoover endorsed the alternative state department policy aiming at a negotiated settlement between China and Japan. By this more conciliatory policy, Hoover sought to maintain reasonable relations between the United States and Japan, and remove an opportunity for the Soviet Union to gain at the expense of United States-Japanese relations. Hoover's decision has been recognized as a major milestone in peaceful statesmanship. The New Deal's reversal of Hoover's policy led ultimately to American economic restrictions on Japan and Japan's predictable attempt to escape those consequences through military responses.

Herbert Hoover, Robert A. Taft, and other Americans warned that an aggressive foreign policy would lead to war. They argued with all their resources against the New Deal foreign policy that made inevitable America's going to war. Without American intervention, the existing conflicts in China and in Europe could have been concluded by negotiated settlements. Or, in the case of the Soviet-Germany conflict, reasoned Hoover, one could expect the mutual destruction of two equally reprehensible regimes. Hoover perceived that the alternative to America remaining at peace involved a sad litany of disaster: further growth and institutionalization of interventionism in the American economy, protracted war with more hundreds of millions of people suffering the economic dislocation which in the past had led others to communism, and an increased role in international affairs on the side of whichever powers the United States became an ally—the Soviet Union, or Germany and Japan. Once the United States entered the Second World War, this same noninterventionist reasoning was presented to criticize the ‘unconditional surrender doctrine’ directed against the Axis powers by Britain, United States, and the Soviet Union. Hoover believed an early negotiated end of the war would have positive effects on the American economy (especially the dollar), would cause less economic dislocation (and thus fewer millions falling under communism), and also cause less of an increase in the power of the Soviet Union while keeping it balanced by a ‘conditionally surrendered’ Germany and Japan.

The post-World War II international situation confirmed for Hoover his worst fears regarding American intervention into the war. Without a negotiated settlement between China and Japan, the prolonged war destroyed China's economic, social, and political institutions, thereby creating a vacuum in which communism was able to gain victory. Again, the American refusal to consider a negotiated peace with Japan opened the door to Soviet occupation of Manchuria. As Hoover had predicted, many hundreds of millions of people in Asia and in Europe emerged from the devastations and interventions of war with communist institutions.

Last modified April 10, 2014